When I look at all the elements in play I see a perfect storm.
Recently the FBI report came back on the Sandy Hook shooter, the news outlet I heard about it from capped off their coverage of the official conclusions with the words “He enjoyed playing video games.” Was that supposed to convey something important?
I don’t know how much the report itself talked about his gaming and I don’t care because gaming doesn’t seem to have been his problem, as PSXE reported he probably preferred non-violent games anyway. The reason I bring this up at all in a conversation about addiction is to illustrate how the media will stop at nothing to attach bad behavior to playing video games.
When these attachments are made it does rile up the politicians on both sides of the aisle to make ignorant comments, but at length things settle down because there is no good science to use to back up the out-of-proportion claims people make. What does stick in the public consciousness? Anecdotes. When people want to wage a war these days they use random case studies.
So far real cases of video game addiction have been pretty few and far between. Even when they do reach the mainstream media there is a kind of tissue rejection by everyone reading it. Those people aren’t us. They are strictly PC gamers who have pre-existing mental problems and have gotten so hooked on Second Life or World of Warcraft that they hadn’t eaten or slept in days prior to their collapse or death. In the less serious cases folks who just can’t control themselves have lost their jobs and education opportunities, but they aren’t us. It isn’t my kid. There’s something especially wrong with them right? I mean come on, even when a game is addictive most people put the damn thing down after a few hours.
As I assess the changes in gaming I feel like things are being tuned to invite addiction. In the last generation and now with the new one we see that gaming consoles aren’t just for gamers. They are multimedia devices that also qualify as super nifty home theatre gadgets. With more consoles in more homes than ever and more games aimed at casual players than ever we have to consider that a whole lot of people without the basic discipline that most gamers have grown up with are going to be exposed to a lot of games. Those games will be vying for the attention of a certain market. That market is often susceptible to hooks. If you’ve ever seen someone who never gamed in their life get into a Facebook game, or Angry Birds, or Candy Crush Saga on their cell phone then you know what I’m getting at. They are crazy addictive games, and when these people graduate to more amazing experiences you can probably imagine what could happen to someone who already spends half their work day flinging birds at pigs.
That brings me to online gaming in general. I can’t really imagine someone sitting down and playing a single player campaign through over and over again. Now with online interactions every session is something new and competition is king. You need to get better, you need to get stronger, you need to not be the one dragging down your group, and you may find yourself in a growing class of people who are missing more and more engagements, be they social activities or potentially beneficial after school activities for students. These are the kinds of things that show up in studies and are used as a wedge against the gaming community.
Irresponsible folks ensconced in unending virtual worlds that are populated with more people than ever before make up enough reason to expect that measurable cases of gaming addiction will rise. It’s the nature of the experiences these days that makes me think it could become a big enough problem to become an uglier news story than it already is. The way games are structured now is probably as addictive as it has ever been.
What happens when you get a trophy? There’s a satisfying little ding, you look up to read the name, and then maybe you go into your menu to see just what the hell it is you did. “Oh cool,” you say when you see you’ve done something noteworthy. Your brain gets a little squirt of serotonin for its reward center. You gain just enough XP in multiplayer to unlock that weapon your friend was telling you about: squirt. You made the most incredible kill anybody has every seen: squirt. You hit your share button and your friends become impressed, they praise you: squirt. That reward center of your brain is getting a lot of reinforcement in return for your gaming time. Suddenly when you are not gaming your real life isn’t so rewarding.
This kind of stuff isn’t a big problem for well grounded people who have survived the days when a cut scene was your reward for ten hours of single player gaming. The last time I checked though, inexperienced casual gamers who aren’t too happy with their real lives and millennials who already need that serotonin squirt on a regular basis are fairly plentiful in the world today.
I’m not saying the world will suddenly be filled with zombies because of video games, I’ve never believed that. However I do think that now more than ever we are at risk of seeing those people who are somewhere else and aren’t us suddenly popping up in our ranks and we are just going to have to expect that the mainstream media is going to use those unfortunate cases as a bludgeon against gaming culture.
When this happens the news stories may pick up steam faster than we can respond without proper advocates in the media at large. Real addiction is a truly nasty problem, but the answer isn’t more misinformation and ignorance campaigns. When these things come up they deserve an honest conversation driven by facts.
I admit to having great difficulty in seeing that happen at least in the next decade and maybe longer unless we do more than grouse on the boards when things go down.